A stranger on... Ipswich waterfront

PUBLISHED: 10:16 10 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:19 20 February 2013

A stranger on... Ipswich waterfront

A stranger on... Ipswich waterfront

Sam Rosebery visits an ever-changing part of our main county town

Its like being parachuted into a parallel universe. Pencil-slim tower blocks thrust heavenwards, caf life spills out on to the quayside and, on this brilliant day, sunlight ricochets along the rows of gleaming white yachts and gin palaces and bounces off the water to dazzling effect.
Yet this glittering new episode in the life of Ipswich remains underpinned by the towns solid maritime history, with quayside warehouses chivvied into new uses and the sense that you are just as likely to bump into an old tar in stevedores cap and overalls as you are Flash Harry in Armani although reality is somewhere between.
Its all so upbeat and urbane and quite unlike anywhere else in Suffolk.
And yet theres a sneaky feeling that the marketing boys cocked-up when they re-branded the quayside to Ipswichs historic Wet Dockcue roll of drums and trumpet fanfareThe Waterfront.
To be sure, it all sounds very hip and dramatic, very New York and Budd Schulberg. But whats the point if no one knows where the flippin heck it is?
I drew blank looks from the first three people of whom I asked directions on the town centres Cornhill, although all assured me they were long-term residents, with one even suggesting Felixstowe as the nearest beach.
Eventually the light dawned when, after much thought, an old dear exclaimed: You mean the docks!
When you get there, of course, its easy to see why the so-called Waterfront and the town appear to be on different planets. The one as modern and edgy as anywhere in Europe and, in these recessionary times, just a little bit scary, while the other iswellIpswich as we know and love it.
The two are cruelly severed one from the other by a deafening, Scalextric-like one-way system on which it would be easy to believe that the same set of slot cars are travelling round and round the track at hypnotic speed.
Yet historically the town and its docklands are forever intertwined, the one only exists because of the other, Ipswich having begun life as a trading settlement on the banks of the River Gipping at sometime during the 7th century. Any growth and prosperity over the intervening millennia is due entirely to the strength of the ports trade in wool and grain, shipbuilding, malting and brewing.
The Wet Dock as we see it today was dug in 1842 and while many of the older buildings are Victorian, one outstanding group of warehouses and maltings survives from much earlier times.
However, back on the Cornhill and having established that it is indeed the docks Im looking for, the old dear kindly directs me down St Nicholas and St Peters streets as being the best, quickest and possible the safest way of getting there on foot.
These two delightful medieval streets meander their way from the town centre to the docks, both lined with lovely old buildings that are home to cafes, bars and restaurants, home interior shops, design houses, galleries, hair and beauty salons and, usefully, including a deli and a stationer.
At the bottom, adjoining a manic roundabout presided over by a hotel straight from a Russian gulag, you must signal the Scalextric controller that you wish to cross both tracks. Trapped between the two is gracious St Peters church, now used for concerts and events and one of a series of ancient churches in the area, whose towers at one time dominated the riverside, long since overshadowed by warehouses and silos and now multi-storey blocks.
A left turn before Stoke Bridge brings you on to the quayside at last and an uninspiring entrance if ever there was. But beyond the burned-out redbrick walls of an old warehouse and the crumbling grey concrete R&W Paul silo its all singing and dancing.
The Mill, a gleaming white apartment block, with touches of primary red, orange and yellow, soars into the sky I count 22 storeys heralding a new age for the Wet Dock. Next door a huge derelict Victorian warehouse awaits transformation, while beyond more new apartments mimic the shape and style of the old buildings they replace, and above, another narrow tower v v block stands as a concrete skeleton, seemingly mothballed for the duration, but no less dramatic.
Yet for all the power and force of the new, its very telling that the old and historic still holds sway. For beyond this first startlingly modern intervention, the quayside remains dominated by the very stately and very sober Old Custom House of 1844.
This fine pillared classic is now the Ipswich home of Associated British Ports, which owns the port and continues to handle commercial shipping downriver, mostly at the West Bank terminal.
Next door is Waterfront House, a forerunner in the rejuvenation programme and still as striking today as it was when first converted some 20 years ago from a shabby 19th century redbrick pile into offices for a shipping line now a law firm HQ.
Moored beneath the buildings oversailing glass front is the floating restaurant, Mariners, while beyond is a low row of warehouses and maltings, now offices, restaurants and a pub. This includes the famous Isaac Lord complex, a remarkable cluster of ancient storehouses, maltings and kilns dating from the early 15th to the late 18th century and including a fine timber-framed Tudor merchants house facing nearby Fore Street.
Here, too, is the four-star Salthouse Hotel, an old warehouse conversion with interiors as cool and as modern as the day, yet in happy harmony with both its new and old surroundings. Beyond is Neptune Square, an extensive modern, redbrick development of homes in a vaguely maritime/warehouse style, with more groundfloor cafes.
Apparently this whole strip of quayside positively heaves on Saturday nights. Yet even on this otherwise ordinary Monday the place is alive with people strolling in the sun, sitting outside cafs and pubs or eating in the restaurants, the windows thrown open to capture the views over the Wet Dock and its marinas.
An escapee from Ipswich council, who shares my caf table, tells me that when Gordon Brown visited the newly-complete University Campus Suffolk building on Neptune Quay in March this year he was so taken aback at the clamouring sight of all those gleaming yachts and expensive motor cruisers that he declared it More like the south of France than Suffolk.
Im grateful to the same very civil servant for directing me to Wherry Lane, v v which is easily missed, so unassuming
and narrow is this little alleyway. For
here is the John Russell Gallery, showing contemporary East Anglian art of such energy and verve. Not to be missed.
The University Campus Suffolk building is a new extension to the college across the way. It overlooks both the Wet Dock and a very handsome, recently completed piazza. Up close, its curved faade a seemingly random chequerboard of off-white and grey panels is fun in a nautical sort of way. But stand back and the building tapers away uncertainly at either end and you have to hunt about to find the entrance, which is around the corner in Fore Street and not on to the quay or the piazza as you might expect.
Still, no one could possibly accuse it of pastiche.
Further on is another huge multi-storied block of apartments, above the headquarters of Neptune Marina and, if you have the puff, from here you can walk all the way down Cliff Quay to the sadly now redundant 19th century Tolly Cobbold Brewery, in its day surely one of the largest and most extrovert buildings of its kind in Europe, with its banks of dormers topped by rows of air vents.
Instead, I backtrack towards Stoke Bridge and cross to the spit of land known as The Island, which separates the River Gipping from the Wet Dock. And from here is perhaps the best view of The Waterfront, taking in the whole sweep and sheer scale of new and old a spectacular backdrop to the forest of yacht masts in the foreground.
As yet undeveloped, The Island is a working base for Ipswich Haven Marina, a sea school, chandlery and a popular bar/restaurant, as well as Spirit Yachts designers and builders.
Here, too, is a testing station for Fairline motor cruisers, jaw-dropping gin palaces of unrestrained luxury destined for nautical fleshpots all over the world.
Leaning on the walkway railings is a workman taking a break from a nearby boatyard.
What does he make of The Waterfront, I ask indicating the amazing scene before us?
His reply is highly verbose, extremely colourful and totally unrepeatable.
I think he likes it.

- For information on regular river cruises on the 118-passenger Orwell Lady, from Ipswich Wet Dock down the River Orwell to Harwich Harbour, telephone 01473 836680 or email info@orwellrivercruises.com or visit www.orwellrivercruises.co.uk

a stranger on...
Ipswich Waterfront

When it comes to wow-factor look no further. But why have the town and its trendy pleasureland ended up in separate beds, asks Sam Rosebery?

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